Deal or no deal
When asked at a fringe at his party’s conference last week if he would be part of a rainbow coalition, Alistair Carmichael, the Lib Dem Secretary of State for Scotland, questioned whether there was any attraction in being part of something that sounded like it might be run by Zippy, George and Bungle.
I suspect his reticence to be part of a cuddly coalition is a tad disingenuous. The Lib Dems, as any politicians, like being in power, regardless of who is pulling the strings. And for a party that faces near wipeout in Scotland, there is an arrogance in any posturing that presupposes who anyone else should or shouldn’t be playing politics with ahead of the General
After all, this is the party that will undoubtedly pay a heavy price for getting into bed with the Tories, whose fundamentals appear at such polar opposites to its own. And while David Cameron and Ed Miliband may now be fighting for the keys to No 10, Nick Clegg is fighting to save himself and his party from total annihilation. That doesn’t really put them or him in pole position to start
But that doesn’t stop the Lib Dems from pontificating. This is a party that appears to believe it has an inherent right to take the moral high ground even when its own has sunk. (Don’t mention tuition fees.)
However, the Lib Dems did set a powerful precedent. They put party interest to one side and nobly took one for the country. So they tell us. And honestly, I think the coalition stands the test of democracy. Which means while you can’t always choose who you’d like to govern with – that decision lies in the hands of the people – when you make the deal, you make the best of it and you stick with it.
So, when asked at the same fringe event why the Lib Dems got into bed with the Tories rather than with Labour, which appeared to share many of the same core principles, Carmichael gave a more nuanced answer which is basically this: why would you only make whoopee with a party that was so similar to your own?
Carmichael said that in some ways, working with a partner that was so different meant that consensus and compromise were hard fought. He said – and I paraphrase – that it meant the process of policy was tried, tested and sometimes tortuous and it meant coalition partners had to learn to argue their cause.
Is that such a bad thing for democracy?
"Sturgeon may ultimately be helping to sign Labour’s death warrant in Scotland but paradoxically, could find herself and her party shackled to a dismal Miliband government"
And the Liberals like the idea of democracy. They talk about it a lot. Apart from when it comes to the SNP. But then the SNP has become the political pariah in this election campaign with every party focused on a mantra of keeping them out of government. At any cost.
The Labour Party says vote SNP and get the Tories. The Tories say vote SNP and get Miliband – albeit by the back door. Ed Miliband says Salmond and Cameron are in an unholy alliance. And Cameron says Salmond is making Miliband dance to the nationalists’ tune. This truly is the Danse Macabre.
Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon has ruled the SNP out of formal coalition with anyone, though leaving the door slightly ajar to a less formal affair with any party engaged in opposing the Tories.
But given that would implicitly put Miliband into No 10, that could prove folly from a hugely popular SNP leader who would be propping up a Labour leader even less liked in Scotland than two-terms Cameron. Sturgeon may ultimately be helping to sign Labour’s death warrant in Scotland but paradoxically, could find herself and her party shackled to a dismal Miliband government for fear of the repercussions of voting them down and ushering in the Tories.
Hear that?… It’s an echo of ’79.
And then there’s former chief Nat and prospective parliamentary candidate for Gordon, Alex Salmond, who has bullishly entered the china shop telling the BBC’s Andrew Marr that the SNP would use its “power” over a minority Labour government to tweak budgets in Scotland’s favour. Now that is a seductive case.
“If you hold the balance, then you hold the power,” said Salmond. His comments had the Tory minister, Anna Soubry, exclaiming that that was the most terrifying thing she had ever heard. Which is slightly worrying from someone in charge of the nation’s defences.
Then there are other Tories like Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential website ConservativeHome.com, who are arguing the case for a Conservative-SNP deal.
Each would gain something from such a Faustian arrangement: the SNP would get, near as damn it, fiscal autonomy and a step closer to independence, while the Tories would get to govern with the added plus of near ridding themselves of Scotland the irritant.
So who is playing who here?
Everyone appears to agree that the archaic two-party system of politics is over and yet, amid all this brouhaha which has the SNP at the heart of everyone’s campaign but apparently not of their political futures, Cameron and Miliband give us one choice – him or the other man.
I was one of the few journalists to predict the rose garden pact between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems would last the course and it did. I am told minority government wouldn’t work at Westminster because the voting system won’t allow it.
But trying to shoehorn a new politics into an old system where not one party attracts majority support just doesn’t work.
Maybe one of the first pieces of legislation for the new parliament to consider, no matter what its make-up, could be parliamentary reform that would mean Westminster actually starts to deliver democracy as we now know it. And if that starts to look like federalism then that is actually an idea that the Lib Dems, for once, could take some credit for.